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- The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 10. - 3/13 -
irresistible charm for her artist's soul. It was a delight to her only to look at him; his absence troubled her, and when he returned she was always the first to greet him. And yet the bright girl troubled herself about him neither more nor less than the other ladies in Sabina's train; only Balbilla asked nothing of him but the pleasure of looking at him and rejoicing in his beauty.
If he had dared to mistake her admiration for love and to have offered her his, the poetess would have indignantly brought him to his bearings; and yet she gave unqualified expression to her admiration of the Bithynian's splendid person, and indeed with rather remarkable demonstrativeness.
When the travellers made their appearance again after a prolonged absence Antinous would find in the room in the ship where he was to live flowers, and choice fruits sent by her, and verses in which she had sung his praises. He put it all aside with the rest and only esteemed the donor the less; but the poetess knew nothing of these sentiments in her beautiful idol, and indeed troubled herself very little about his feelings. She had hitherto found no difficulty in keeping within the limits of what was becoming. But lately there had been moments in which she had owned to herself that she might be carried away into overstepping these limits. But what did she care for the opinion of those around her, or about the inner life of the Bithyman, whose external perfection of form was all that pleased her. She did not shrink from the possibility of arousing hopes in him which she never could nor intended to fulfil, for the idea did not once enter her mind; still she felt dissatisfied with herself, for there was one person who might disapprove of her proceedings, one who had indeed in plain words reprehended her fancy for doing honor to the handsome boy with offerings of flowers, and the opinion of that one person weighed with her more than that of all the rest of the men and women she knew, put together.
This one was Pontius the architect; and yet, strangely enough, it was precisely her remembrance of him that urged her on from one folly to another. She had often seen the architect in Alexandria, and when they parted she had allowed him to promise to follow her and the Empress, and to escort them at any rate for a part of their voyage up the Nile. But he came not, nor had he sent any report of himself, though he was alive and well, and every express that overtook them brought documents for Caesar in his handwriting.
So he, on whose faithful devotion she had built as on a rock, was no less self-seeking and fickle than other men. She thought of him every day and every hour; and as soon as a vessel from the north cast anchor within sight, she watched the voyagers as they disembarked to detect him among them. She longed for Pontius as a traveller who has lost his way sighs for a sight of the guide who has deserted him; and yet she was angry with him, for he had betrayed by a thousand tokens that he esteemed and cared for her, that she had a certain power over his strong will--and now he had broken his word and did not come.
And she? She had not been unmoved by his devotion, and had been gentler to this grandson of her father's freed slave than to the best-born man of her own rank. And in spite of it all Pontius could spoil all the pleasure of her journey and stay in Alexandria instead of following in her wake. He could easily have intrusted his building to other architects--the great metropolis was swarming with them! Well, if he did not trouble himself about her she certainly need care even less about him. Perhaps at last, at the end of their travels he might yet come, and then he should see how much she cared for his admonitions.
But she sighed impatiently for the hour when she might read him all the verses she had addressed to Antinous, and ask him how he liked them. It gave her a childish pleasure to add to the number of these little poems, to finish them elaborately, and display in them all her knowledge and ability. She gave the preference to artificial and massive metres; some of the verses were in Latin, others in the Attic, and others again in the Aeolian dialects of Greek, for she had now learnt to use this, and all to punish Pontius--to vex Pontius--and at the same time to appear in his eyes as brilliant as she could. She belauded Antinous, but she wrote for Pontius, and for every flower she gave the lad she had sent a thought to the architect, though with a curl on her lips of scornful defiance.
But a young girl cannot be always praising the beauty of a youth in new and varied forms with complete impunity, and thus there were hours when Balbilla was inclined to believe that she really loved Antinous. Then she would call herself his Sappho, and he seemed destined to be her Phaon. During his long absences with the Emperor she would long to see him--nay, even with tears; but, as soon as he was by her side again, and she could look at his inanimate beauty and into his weary eyes, when she heard the torpid "Yes" or "No" with which he replied to her questions, the spell was entirely broken and she honestly confessed to herself that she would as soon see him before her hewn in marble as clothed in flesh and blood.
In such moments as these her memory of the architect was particularly fresh, and once, when their ship was sailing through a mass of lotos leaves, above which one splendid full-blown flower raised its head, her apt imagination, which rapidly seized on everything noteworthy and gave it poetic form, entwined the incident in a set of verses, in which she designated Antinous as the lotos-flower which fulfils its destiny simply by being beautiful, and comparing Pontius to the ship which, well constructed and well guided, invited the traveller to new voyages in distant lands.
The Nile voyage came to an end at Thebes of the hundred gates, and here nothing that could attract the Roman travellers remained unvisited. The tombs of the Pharaohs extending into the very heart of the rocky hills, and the grand temples that stood to the west of the city of the dead, shorn though they were of their ancient glory, filled the Emperor with admiration. The Imperial travellers and their companions listened to the famous colossus of Memnon, of which the upper portion had been overthrown by an earthquake, and three times in the dawn they heard it sound.
Balbilla described the incident in several long poems which Sabina caused to be engraved on the stone of the colossus. The poetess imagined herself as hearing the voice of Memnon singing to his mother Eos while her tears, the fresh morning dew, fell upon the image of her son, fallen before the walls of Troy. These verses she composed in the Aeolian dialect, named herself as their writer and informed the readers--among whom she included Pontius--that she was descended from a house no less noble than that of King Antiochus.
The gigantic structures on each bank of the Nile fully equalled Hadrian's expectations, though they had suffered so much injury from earthquakes and sieges, and the impoverished priesthood of Thebes were no longer in a position to provide for their preservation even, much less for their restoration. Balbilla accompanied Caesar on a visit to the sanctuary of Ammon, on the eastern shore of the Nile. In the great hall, the most vast and lofty pillared hall in the world, her impressionable soul felt a peculiar exaltation, and as the Emperor observed how, with a heightened color she now gazed upward, and then again, leaning against a towering column, looked at the scene around her, he asked her what she felt, standing in this really worthy abode of the gods.
"One thing--above all things one thing!" cried the girl. "That architecture is the sublimest of the arts! This temple is to me like some grand epode, and the poet who composed it conceived it not in feeble words but formed it out of almost immovable masses. Thousands of parts are here combined to form a whole, and each is welded with the rest into beautiful harmony and helps to give expression to the stupendous idea which existed in the brain of the builder of this hall. What other art is gifted with the power of creating a work so imperishable and so far transcending all ordinary standards?"
"A poetess crowning the architect with laurels!" exclaimed the Emperor. "But is not the poet's realm the infinite, and can the architect ever get beyond the finite and the limited?"
"Then is the nature of the divinity a measurable unit?" asked Balbilla. "No, it is not; and yet this hall gives one the impression that the very divinity might find space in it to dwell in."
"Because it owes it existence to a master-mind, which while it conceived it stood on the boundary line of eternity. But do you think this temple will outlast the poems of Homer?"
"No; but the memory of it will no more fade away that of the wrath of Achilles or the wanderings of the experienced Odysseus."
"It is a pity that our friend Pontius cannot hear you," said Hadrian. "He has completed the plans for a work which is destined to outlive me and him and all of us.
"I mean my own tomb. Besides that I intend him to erect gates, courts and halls in the Egyptian style at Tibur, which may remind us of our travels in this wonderful country. I expect him to-morrow."
"To-morrow!" exclaimed Balbilla, and her face fired with a scarlet flush to her very brow.
Shortly after starting from Thebes--on the second day of November-- Hadrian came to a great decision. Verus should be acknowledged not merely as his son but also as his successor.
Sabina's urgency would not alone have sufficed to put a term to his hesitancy, especially as it had lately been farther increased by a wish that was all his own. His wife's heart had pined for a child, but he too had longed for a son, and he had found one in Antinous. His favorite was a boy he had picked up by chance, the son of humble though free parents, but it lay in the Emperor's power to make him great, to confer on him the highest posts of honor in the Empire, and at last to recognize him publicly as his heir. Antinous, if any one, had deserved this at his hands, and on no other man could he so ungrudgingly bestow everything that he possessed.
These ideas and hopes had now filled his mind for many months, but the nature and the mood of the young Bithyman had been more and more adverse to them.
Hadrian had striven more earnestly than his predecessors to raise the fallen dignity of the Senate, and still he could count securely on its consent to any measure. The leading official authorities of the Republic had been recognized and allowed the full exercise of their powers. To be sure, be they whom they might, they all had to obey the Emperor, still they were always there; and even with a weak ruler at its head the Empire might continue to subsist within the limits established by Hadrian, and restricted with wise moderation. Nevertheless, only a few months previously he would not have ventured to think of the adoption of his favorite. Now he hoped to find himself somewhat nearer to the fulfilment of his wishes. It is true Antinous was still a dreamer; but in their wanderings and hunting excursions through Egypt he had proved himself gallant and prompt, intelligent, and, after their departure from Thebes, even bold and lively at times. Antinous, under this aspect, he himself
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